"Breath is the bridge of communication between all levels of awareness."
"It is as absurd to learn to breathe as it is to learn to make your blood circulate…
Breathing needs not be taught, but liberated.” Wilhelm Reich
As a student of Yoga, integrating breath into my practice has been drummed into me from day 1 - from the gentle pranayama techniques taught by my first teacher, to ubiquitous ujjayi breath used during a strong Ashtanga or vinyasa practice to the Taoist techniques I have learned along the way. I have always been fascinated with this aspect of the practice; I had an experience, really early on (I think I was about 16) of what I would now call 'breathing my body' in a simple forward fold. I was hanging there, learning the vocabulary of this practice in my body, when I felt my entire nervous system shift gears and my body charge with energy. The unity, space and freedom granted to me in that moment by my body has stayed with me ever since. Now a teacher, I have found it a challenge to guide people into a deeper awareness of the breath and its power with words alone. Breathing, in and of itself, is not a 'thinking' process, though it can certainly be guided by, and affected by, our thoughts. I still - despite my early experience of liberating and being liberated by my breath - always tried to force or control my breath as a student, and it wasn't until I a) stopped trying so hard and b) stumbled upon Wilhelm Reich's quote above and had a minor epiphany (as in, all those years of practice finally condensed into understanding) that I really grasped what it was to RELAX into my breath. When I started teaching Yin Yoga, where students spend upwards of five minutes or longer in a pose, I found I had more time to sit with people and really help them FEEL their breath’s potential. It’s helped me develop a little technique whereby the student guides the breath through their body with the assistance of my hands. You can have students use their own hands, however, I don't think it's as useful as having another's hands there to guide. This is a great partner exercise if you have someone you trust around to literally give you a hand.
Working with touch is super-important for teachers, in my opinion. That ability to a) translate a sensation to a student's body via your touch and b) to connect and help focus energy and attention is incomparable. I'm going to write more about touch, leave that one with me. Back to breathing, though!
Breath is the backbone of every movement, let's face it, every moment, in this body. No breath = death. Many of us are unaware that our inability to inhabit our breath and relax into it is a reflection of our own inability to fully inhabit this body of ours, these crazy lives we live, and this is one way we can work with our interior landscape to alter our outer experience. I hope you’ll give this a try and see if you can dive a little deeper into yourself, maybe find a touch more ease in your daily life.
This is a breathing exercise I use with my massage and Yoga friends to help develop body awareness and assist them in understanding and liberating the breath.
NB: if you don't have a partner, use your own hands.
Lie down on the floor, belly and chest facing up, softening the entire body, arms + legs outstretched, neck + jaw relaxed. Have your partner sit beside you, kneeling or sitting, but not touching you just yet. Take this time to take a few deep breaths. Have your partner sync their breath with yours.
Have your partner place their favourite hand on your belly, just slightly below the navel. Close your eyes and have your partner ask you to breathe into their hand. Look for a sense of rising in the abdomen and expanding through the sacrum and pelvis on the inhale; on the exhale, feel these areas soften. You might even feel the breath move down into the legs and feet. Take your time and don’t worry if you don’t feel much at the start - your awareness will develop over time. Keep the breath relaxed, just let the breath move as naturally as possible. Remember, we’re trying to free the breath, not force it. If you are having trouble, ask your partner to apply a bit more pressure so you can really feel their hand. If it’s too ‘easy,’ have them use a lighter touch, so you have to pay closer attention to feel their touch.
Once you feel comfortable with this belly breathing, have your partner take their second hand to your solar plexus, at the bottom of the ribs. Breathe into first the navel hand, then the rib hand. On the inhale, feel the sacrum, pelvis and abdominal area filling, then feel the breath moving up to the diaphragm, feel the ribcage expanding front and back, and out to the sides. Feel the breath move to the shoulderblades and collarbones. You can pause here for a moment, feeling the expansiveness of the breath, then exhale the air out slowly. Repeat. If there are areas of the body that the breath cannot access, ask your partner to place their hand or hands there. You may need to sit up - many people have trouble feeling their ‘backbody’ breathing; if that’s the case, sit up in a relaxed posture and have your partner place their hands on your back ribs behind your lungs to help you fill that space. If you're on your own, you can try sitting against a wall for that same feedback.
Have your partner remove their hands, and practice full body breathing on your own, feeling for the liberation and ease of the breath. Relax yourself into the breath. Sometimes, it’s nice to pause at the top of the inhale (when the body is full of air) and at the bottom of the exhale (body empty of air), and rest a moment or two, before continuing to breathe, to develop an awareness of the sensation of breathing and to soothe the nervous system. Once you feel the practice is complete, take a moment to just rest. Allow your body to integrate this new information.
Thank your partner for their guiding touch.
Try this with yourself and your students/clients and see how you go.